This interview captures a chat between two Marine veterans and the impact repeated conversations with one have had on the other. J.R. Lewis and Mike Hanes are typical of the veterans I have met who are working to create a culture of what I call "unoffendability" and are on a quest to change how we all feel about resource scarcity and sustainability.
We didn't hear the shot that had killed a Marine that day, but the news traveled to us nearly as fast as a bullet and hit us hard.
At the training pool of the famed Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island (South Carolina), a drill instructor climbed to the high dive platform, shouted the command to silence the recruits undergoing swim qualification down below ("Eyeballs!"), and after receiving the return call from the recruits letting him know he had their attention ("Snap sir!"), he placed the business end of an M-16A2 service rifle under his chin and squeezed the trigger.
We were told later the same morning by our drill instructor, Sergeant Flannery, who seemed human for just a second as his eyes welled with tears. The deceased Marine had been a friend of his.
We the Marine recruits of Platoon 1018, Charlie Co., 1st Recruit Training Battalion spent the rest of the day speculating amongst ourselves about the act. Why would anyone want to punch out of a life, especially one graced by a career in the Corps? Had he really tossed his campaign cover in the water before committing the act? We were midway through having our version of reality revised courtesy of the Marine Corps heralded recruit training program and couldn't understand any day in the Corps being so bad.
Many times that day, several of us repeated the same question.
"Can you imagine being one of those poor recruits in the pool?"
Eighteen years later, Mike Hanes answered the question for me.
"It was no bueno, brother," Mike said in his typical, understated fashion.
That's it? I thought. No bueno? Who is this guy?
Forager Mike teaches the author's daughter, Kat, the art of eating things out of the yard.
I had met Mike earlier that evening at a sustainable agriculture event near San Diego. We were both invited to a Mexican restaurant for dinner and, sitting next to one another, struck up a conversation about our Marine Corps service (this is the Marines version of dogs sniffing under each others' tails and can often be just as unpleasant). It was a crazy coincidence that we had both been at Parris Island at the same time and when I brought up the suicide, his blue eyes got heavy. I realized before he said a word that he was in that pool.
But instead of dwelling on that awful moment, we took it as a sign that we should be friends and went deep into conversation. And as the mariachi music played I sat and listened to this brilliant autodidact expound on topics ranging from bouncing radio signals off of the ionosphere to get extraction coordinates for his Recon unit to the car he was building that could get 120 MPG.
Three margaritas into the night, I was enthralled by the realization that I was conversing with an actual genius. Not just a genius, but a genius with a huge heart and a deep concern about the many ways human beings were wrecking what could be paradise.
Years later, I would hear Dylan Ratigan use the word "unoffendable," and it immediately brought me back to that night. Here was a man who had witnessed more death and destruction than I could imagine, who had broken his back in a parachute accident and had his wife punch out on their marriage the night before he was to be deployed for combat. And yet he seemed committed to nothing more than relentless tinkering in hopes of making the world a better place. Whether building cars, models for sustainable cities, or hydroponic greenhouses, Mike is fixated on applying technology to ancient, seemingly intractable problems.
Since that night in San Diego, Mike and I have had a number of similar chats. Our families have grown close. And we have benefitted from his knowledge, wit and willingness to share what he has learned.
Mike is dedicated to living in primitive fashion for long stretches of time in order to leech out some of society's poison. He is also a skilled wild edible forager and enjoys teaching classes on plant identification, primitive survival skills, and eating well without a grocery store within 100 miles of your location.
I recently got Mike to sit down and chat with me about his ruthless quest to solve old problems in new ways.
J.R.: How were your opinions on resource scarcity informed by all the time you spent overseas as a Reconnaissance Marine?
Mike: I was in the Corps for almost nine years and spent the majority of my time overseas and almost all of them were beset by poverty. Poverty brings about more human misery, suffering and death than any other condition. And yeah, I started connecting the dots and seeing that the power in these structures were reinforced by artificial scarcity. You remember playing musical chairs when you were kid, right?
Sure I do.
When I was in fourth grade, I got into a fight with a kid over that game. There was one chair left and we were going around and around. The music stopped and I jumped in the chair. He pushed me out and I hit him. Off to the principal's office we went. Around the world, chairs are removed to keep people fighting for resources. You get a lot of pissed off people living in poverty. Then comes the warfare. And it all comes from the outdated system of managing resources.
Do you feel as if people put a special weight on your opinion because you're a veteran? I always get the feeling that we are always used to justify preexisting views of the world.
Yeah, I feel those expectations and it always changes from crowd to crowd and individual to individual. In 2003, the predominant sentiment was so pro-war that your patriotism was questioned if you thought it might be a bad idea. After going through it and having direct experience with that horror, I look at that behavior as unacceptable and primitive.
Not primitive in a good way, I'm assuming.
No, not at all. And a whole other group wants to take that feeling and exploit it to whatever end.
The time I had the privilege to forage with you and Dylan Ratigan, I was amazed that you were picking wild edibles five feet from your front door. It isn't something you have to go deep into the woods to start doing.
Just like the shelter building. The great thing about it is you can start out at different levels. Start out with what you see and what is local to you, then just expand from there. Eventually you'll get to the point where you can go off into the woods with complete confidence without being worried or scared of anything.
Which brings up a good point. You are into more than just primitive living. You have designed cars and even cities in ways that you believe are sustainable. It seems that applications of certain technology come from fear. I'm afraid of being attacked by terrorists so I will be cool with the government snooping. I'm afraid of admitting I support bodily sovereignty so I will just support failed drug policies.
The way we live keeps the survival mechanism on full time. We live in a competitive system where we feel as if we need to take advantage of one another to survive. But our capabilities are beyond that and our mindset has allowed us to build a system that prevents the universal caring for of others. If you can relieve that through knowledge and self awareness and skillful living, then maybe you can start to look at humanity through a different lens.
How does this play into your feelings on resources?
Well, when you are out in the wilderness, the most important thing is intelligent management of resources. That creative resourcefulness is an amazing tool. When I'm using a bow drill to start a fire, that is intelligent use of resources and technology to create something that I would be dead without. Transposing that to society at large today, I see amazing technology controlled by old, outdates systems of cooperation that pretty much guarantee we won't be able to keep a handle on progress. We need to update our train of thought and really to start thinking seriously about intelligent resource management through compassionate use of technology. We obviously need a more cooperative system.
Yeah, but you start talking "cooperation" and folks hear "socialism."
Socialism, communism, fascism...outdated political and capital-use systems based on outdated ideologies. It all comes back to distribution of scarcity. But so many of our problems are technical. Transparent, resource-based solutions deserve more experimentation. To get us from where we are, to where we'd like to be, we need to keep tinkering with the system, pushing boundaries and asking questions without fear. I know it sounds Star Trek-ish, but we have no choice but to enter into a more cooperative, tech-enabled mindset.
Ratigan and I had this discussion about how being a veteran carries a mythology that can open doors but wondered if it can also be a backward-looking title that keeps us weighed down in the past.
Yeah, I guess. What do you mean?
For instance, I have sat zazen style with Zen Buddhists, but just because I have had that experience doesn't mean that I necessarily have to identify with that for the rest of my life. And I don't. I worry about carrying any label around with me for fear it will become like a turtle shell for me to hide in.
I think that makes sense and happens quite often. Obviously it is happening to veterans trying to find work. They get labeled with the loony or crazed-vet stigma or get the weird "hero" label. But there is an understanding and a comfortable shorthand we all have so I do appreciate spending time with veterans. I just don't feel like I should have to carry that around like you are saying, like a turtle shell.
I remember our young daughters, and even my snarky 15-year-old teenager girl, seeming like they had something just flip on when you took them foraging. Identifying and eating those plants changed them. My youngest still talks about Forager Mike more than she talks about the trip to Disney World we took around the same time.
That makes me feel good. One of the things I love doing most. They will create the future. It's important to ground them with a connection to the Earth, not a Disney-mediated vision of nature.
You have a daughter. I have two daughters. I spend way too much time worrying about the world they will grow up in. I'm sure every parent from every generation has done the same thing. I have to ask you, when you think about the world your daughter will grow up in, what do you see?
That's a big one man. My daughter has completely changed the direction my life was headed. When I got back from Iraq, I was like "Screw human beings. Let them all kill each other. This won't get any better." I was motivated more than ever to learn primitive skills, go out on my own and let the world go down the toilet drain like it obviously wanted to do. But having that little girl come into my life forced me to look at things in a different way and focus on what our children inherited. Now I have this balance. I go out into the woods to recharge and refocus so I can use all of the positive energy I get out there to do everything I can to aid like-minded people to turn this around.
I didn't know the Mike Hanes just back from Iraq, but it's hard for me to imagine anything other than a loving human being. Daughter or no daughter.
I guess it depends on what mood I'm in. There have been times that I believed that humans are just evil. But with some time to gain perspective on the war experience and studying social sciences and just observing human beings, I feel differently. It goes back to always having that survival mechanism triggered and the ways in which the society we have built keeps us in constant, unnecessary fear. These things lead to the abhorrent behavior we inflict on each other.
You are especially cognizant of these things for one reason; Because you're a lover. Like I was saying.
I guess. Whatever. I try to be. I'm giving humanity a shot. OK, I'll admit it. I love all you guys.
OK, that's it. I want to leave with that.